By Jess Nicholas
Jan. 16, 2017
While the Tide’s loss to Clemson in the college football championship game – arguably the first time Alabama has cost itself a title via the season’s final game in the long, storied history of the program – still stings a week afterward, it’s time to write the final chapter in this season’s book and prepare for what awaits in the 2017 season.
Alabama mostly met expectations this year, in regards to what kind of team it put on the field. In respect to what it accomplished, Alabama probably exceeded expectations. TideFans.com projected Alabama to capture the No. 3 seed in the College Football Playoff (behind No. 1 Ohio State, No. 2 Oklahoma and ahead of No. 4 Clemson), but with a regular-season loss to LSU in the mix. When LSU overreacted to an early losses to Wisconsin and Auburn, though, and fired Les Miles, the chances of LSU beating Alabama mostly evaporated.
Here’s TideFans.com’s take on how the 2016 season ended, and what lies in store for the coming year.
What was expected: Coming into the season, most expected Cooper Bateman to win the starting job, at least for the USC opener. Bateman and Blake Barnett were gauged as the likely competitors and most believed the two would fight it out on the field the first two or three games of the season before a starter was named for the SEC portion of the schedule.
What actually happened: Barnett was named the starter the day of the USC opener, but true freshman Jalen Hurts overtook Bateman for the backup job, then jumped ahead of Barnett after Barnett appeared to fold up under pressure against USC. Barnett continued to play sporadically in the next few games before Hurts grabbed the job for good. Barnett transferred, while Bateman only played in blowouts and David Cornwell was relegated to mostly sideline signal duty.
Grade/analysis: B. This would have been an A-grade for Hurts, given the circumstances, until the postseason came along. Hurts struggled in all three postseason opportunities, with his worst game coming against Washington in the national semifinal. There will always be a “what-if” argument to make for Barnett had he not chosen to leave in knee-jerk fashion, but there’s plenty of what-ifs left to go around in a discussion of what Cooper Bateman might have done against Washington and Clemson if given the opportunity. By the end of the year, Hurts had become the quarterback people feared Bateman would have been, anyway. It was still a great regular season for the true freshman Hurts, and with Bateman and Cornwell both choosing to transfer away from the program, Hurts will go into spring training the heavy favorite to keep the job … but incoming freshman Tua Tagovailoa might make things interesting.
Looking ahead: If Alabama is going to compete for another national title in 2017, it will have to get better quarterback play, because the defense isn’t likely to be as good next year. Alabama ranked 12th in rushing offense but only 87th in passing offense, and Hurts stopped developing somewhere around the season’s 12th week. It’s wild to think Alabama might have a true freshman making significant contributions for a second consecutive year, but the Crimson Tide can’t win at a high level if Hurts continues to struggle. New offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian is considered a great developer of quarterbacks and a good teacher of technique, and Hurts will thus get the best teaching money can buy. But if he can’t learn to read the middle of the field better, or to be able to throw effectively while rolling out on both sides of the pocket, Alabama might have to make a change.
What was expected: Most expected Bo Scarbrough to win the job and eventually – as in, the last game of the season – he did. But Damien Harris spent the majority of the season as Alabama’s starting running back, thanks in part to Scarbrough’s penchant for breaking down. Running back was viewed as a problem spot for Alabama heading into the season, as Harris’ struggles in 2015 had many thinking Alabama would start incoming freshman B.J. Emmons. To be frank, not much was expected of this group.
What actually happened: One could argue Alabama significantly outperformed expectations. Harris developed into a solid back, displaying far greater balance and vision than during his true freshman season. It was an especially key development, given that Emmons played a handful of games and then went down with a leg injury. Scarbrough started slowly, but gradually improved and by the end of the year, was running through and over most defenses. The breakout player was probably the less-heralded of Alabama’s two signees, Joshua Jacobs, who will battle Harris for the top backup job in 2016. Even walk-on Derrick Gore became a legitimate part of the rotation. Few could complain about this group by the time the year was over, yet another testament to Burton Burns’ coaching ability.
Grade/analysis: B+. It’s an A if Scarbrough manages to stay healthy, but his final injury of the season – a broken leg – could not have possibly come at a worse time. Harris and Jacobs probably could have shouldered more of the load in the championship game had they been given more opportunities, but we’ll never know. Given where this unit was thought to have been at the start of the season, it came along further than probably any unit on the team.
Looking ahead: Gore is transferring in search of playing time, but all the other names remain. Alabama will get its four core players back, then add Najee Harris and Brian Robinson to the mix. What was a source of concern for Alabama heading into 2016 suddenly becomes potentially the strength of the offense in 2017. Ronnie Clark is also still on the roster and, in limited work in 2016, finally showed flashes of potential now that injuries are behind him. If he can move to H-back and give Alabama a legitimate option there, it would be a boon to the offense as a whole.
WIDE RECEIVERS/TIGHT ENDS
What was expected: Calvin Ridley was coming off a fantastic freshman season and ArDarius Stewart had closed out 2015 in a strong way. Gehrig Dieter was transferring in from Bowling Green, while Robert Foster was finally healthy and Cameron Sims had looked exceptional in spring work. Together with others such as Derek Kief, Trevon Diggs and Raheem Falkins, Alabama was thought to have the best wide receiver corps in the league. And that was before tight end O.J. Howard was added to the discussion.
What actually happened: Stewart and Howard had strong years, in Stewart’s case strong enough to allow him to declare for the NFL Draft after the Clemson loss. Howard finally added above-average blocking skills to his already impressive receiving skills, and his production won’t be easily replaced. But the rest of the unit didn’t live up to billing. Ridley simply suffered from a lack of development at the quarterback position. To his credit, he kept his head down and competed every week, and improved his blocking. But he wasn’t the game-changing weapon he’d been as a freshman. Dieter did a lot of small things well, particularly on special teams, but except in goal-line offense, he didn’t live up to the hype, and dropped passes were a problem. Sims got hurt again at the front of the season, but rebounded well enough to give hope for a strong senior year in 2017. Foster disappeared. Diggs was probably the closest thing to a breakout player from this group. Miller Forristall showed a lot of potential at H-back TE, but Hale Hentges struggled at the Y spot. Overall it was a mixed bag and not what Alabama was hoping for.
Grade/analysis: B-. Only Howard and Stewart held this out of “C” territory and it wasn’t by much, even then. How much of their struggles was due to Hurts’ limitations in the passing game is unclear, but things have got to improve in 2017.
Looking ahead: With Stewart and Dieter no longer in the program, Diggs and Sims look like the favorites to start alongside Ridley. Robert Foster is the big question here; he could challenge for a starting job or be out of Tuscaloosa altogether, or anything in between. Assuming Foster sticks it out, he’d be no worse than in competition with Sims for the starting flanker spot. Diggs will probably at least be Alabama’s slot receiver, while Kief has been on the fringes of the main rotation for two years and has a good chance to step up. Falkins has great size but has never been able to stay healthy, and his hands are suspect. Xavian Marks could work his way into a slot/scatback role, and T.J. Simmons played sparingly as a true freshman and should be in the mix. Signee Jerry Jeudy, in school already, is expected to push for playing time as a true freshman. Chadarius Townsend will as well, if he plays offense rather than defense. The real question marks are at tight end, where Irv Smith Jr. may press Hentges for the starting job at Y, while Forristall seems to have H nailed down. Alabama will have to use true freshmen for depth there.
What was expected: With three new starters going into last year, Alabama was expected to struggle a bit. Ross Pierschbacher was set to play right guard, with Lester Cotton at left guard, while J.C. Hassenauer and Bradley Bozeman battled at center and Jonah Williams and Korren Kirven fought for right tackle. The one sure thing was Cam Robinson at left tackle. Depth was supposed to be strong, particularly inside. Most were looking for an average year, with the possibility of better things if the starting group came together quickly.
What actually happened: Robinson played well enough to win the Outland Trophy, albeit with several poorly-timed procedure penalties on his resume by season’s end. Hassenauer never really challenged Bozeman, who claimed center with a strong performance against USC and never gave it back. Pierschbacher ended up having an up-and-down season and was eventually moved back to left guard, where he’d worked the previous year. Alphonse Taylor, who began the year suspended, returned to his right guard spot and was on the verge of locking it down when he suffered a severe concussion around the time of the Arkansas game, his career ending at that point. Once that happened, Alabama never seemed to get the right guard position figured out. Cotton moved over from left guard, then Kirven from right tackle. Little-used reserve Josh Casher made a move, but a broken foot ended his year.
Grade/analysis: C+. Jonah Williams may have been even better than Robinson – he was certainly more consistent – although Robinson got more of the media attention due to his reputation. Bozeman’s play at center was never worse than adequate. The issue were the guards, which were both below average for the year. Pierschbacher had some good moments but didn’t play as well as he did as a redshirt freshman the year before. Kirven got off to a good start at right guard but looked overmatched in the playoffs. Cotton wasn’t effective at either guard spot and according to coaches, won’t be tried there again. The two-coach system of Brent Key for G/C and Mario Cristobal for tackles and tight ends never seemed to jell, and Cristobal has left the program. Key will probably get the entire line to himself next year, with Cristobal’s replacement taking only tight ends.
Looking ahead: Alabama’s line must play better in 2017, especially as reliance on the running game becomes a bigger part of the offense again under Sarkisian. Williams will likely move from right tackle to left, with either JUCO signee Elliot Baker stepping in at RT or Scott Lashley, a redshirt freshman with tons of upside. Sophomore Matt Womack will also compete there, as will Lester Cotton. The real question, though, is at guard, where Pierschbacher must improve and a new starter has to be found at RG. It’s not totally crazy to think Bozeman could move out from C, allowing Hassenauer to start there, but Casher, Dallas Warmack and Brandon Kennedy will likely get first dibs. Redshirts Chris Owens and Deonte Brown will also get a look, as will signee Alex Leatherwood. There are plenty of candidates, and plenty of pressure at the same time.